Church of Modern Rock: Marty Willson-Piper on his impromptu jam with Mark Burgess in Boston
Faneuil Hall in Boston is known for many things. A surreal night of rock and roll kismet is not high atop the list.
But on July 21, 2009, the post-punk and psychedelic rock stars aligned for a night of music that’s still discussed in local circles with significant awe. Mark Burgess, former frontman of influential Manchester band the Chameleons, performed live at Hennessy’s Upstairs Rock Club with a backing band he only met a few hours prior in Worcester’s the Curtain Society. Towards the end of the thrilling set, which featured Chameleons songs both familiar and rare, the Church guitarist Marty Willson-Piper jumped on stage for a cover of “Splitting In Two” by lost punk band Alternative TV.
In the years that followed, many have documented the unique events leading up to that night — how Burgess was looking for a hotel in Boston (he had a wedding in Maine to attend) and found a fan through the Chameleons Vox MySpace page, a fan who happened to be the Hennessy’s booking agent; how that booking agent, Sean Flynn, secured Burgess a place to stay in exchange for a quick set at his venue; how the Curtain Society, longtime Chameleons fans familiar with their catalog, were hired within a week to back up the frontman; and how the Burgess and the band didn’t even get a chance to rehearse. But no one ever asked just what Marty Willson-Piper, who hails from just outside of Manchester, Burgess’ hometown, was doing in Boston and how exactly he made his way to the stage.
With Willson-Piper in town to play ONCE Ballroom in Somerville this Saturday with his new band, Acres of Space, we caught up with the musician by phone during a rehearsal in New York. And we asked — how’d this all come together on that special night nearly seven years ago?
“I can’t even remember why I was in Boston!” the affable Willson-Piper tells us with a laugh. “That night I might have seen Steely Dan at one of your theaters. I had a ticket to that, and I was staying with a friend.” He stops, gives it some more thought, then admits: “I’m not sure if I’m telling you the truth here.”
Turns out the Steely Dan show wasn’t for another few nights, but Willson-Piper was in town, staying with longtime friend Frank Donnolly. He says he and Burgess met at a wedding in Germany several years prior, and remained in touch.
“It became apparent the night he was there in Boston I had the night off, and he was playing with Curtain Society,” Willson-Piper says. “So I just went to the show! It came up that I was there, and it was very much just ‘Marty! Come up and play a song with us!’ And I’m always up for a bit of that. It was an impromptu situation of us finding ourselves as contemporaries on stage with a band from Boston and it was a beautiful thing.”
In a 2010 interview with the Boston Phoenix, Burgess admits the entire night was crafted on-the-fly, something that no doubt added to the incredible mood and tone in the venue that night. “I’m standing there with this band, and I’ve got absolutely no idea what they’re going to sound like,” Burgess says. “I actually said to the audience, ‘This [set] is going to be as much a surprise to you as it is me, because I haven’t heard the backing band.’ Everybody was laughing like I was joking, but I wasn’t.”
But the Curtain Society were up for the task. The trio were known to play Chameleons songs in their live sets, and even released a cover of the Chameleons’ biggest hit, “Swamp Thing”, in 1996 as a b-side. “It’s always seemed like a miracle that we would even get to see Mark or the Chameleons play live, since I started getting into them after they had broken up already,” Curtain Society singer/guitarist Roger Lavallee told the Boston Herald in 2009, just before the Hennessy’s gig. “Now to think that we would be playing these songs with Mark is just beyond a dream come true.”
True to the night’s theme of just going with it, Willson-Piper says his involvement wasn’t planned until just before the show began, and he wasn’t even sure how they decided on the song to play. “It was one of those magical moments, just a random series of circumstances,” he says. “I’ve been doing this a long time. I just like to fit in and play.”
In the years since, Burgess has continued to tour under the name Chameleons VOX, where the frontman performs his catalog with a new band, which he finds more often than not have more interest in playing deeper cuts than his former bandmates. “When you play with musicians that really want to play with you because they love the music so much,” Burgess told the Phoenix, “there’s a lot more passion than there was with the Chameleons, for the most part. It sounds weird, but it’s true.”
And the same now holds true for Acres of Space. Willson-Piper left the Church in 2013 after more than two decades with the Australian band, and now finds the freedom to just go out and play songs from all of his bands — including All About Eve, the Saints, and others — liberating and refreshing. The band features a rotating cast that’s based on the territory around the world he’s currently touring.
And using the Acres of Space moniker opens things up for musical interpretation and exploration.
“What Mark was doing with [VOX] is similar to what I’m doing with Acres of Space,” he says. “I didn’t want to go out as me and be stuck. If I created an umbrella for all my projects, it could be exciting, different. I go along with what the band wants to play. I’m 58 years old. I need to babble. I need to do what I want to do, and be able to do it. I gotta be happy.”
MARTY WILLSON-PIPER’S ACRES OF SPACE + HuDOST + KALIDASI + THE MILLING GOWNS :: Saturday, June 18 at ONCE Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 7:30 p.m., 18-plus, $20 in advance and $25 at doors :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page